Thought Bubble: Size Matters

Last week, the newly-released PS4 exclusive The Order: 1886 drew a lot of controversy for its perceived lack of content and replayability. According to reviews and playthroughs, the game clocks in at 5-8 hours of total playtime, including cut scenes, with no real incentive to play again.

I’m not often one to complain about games being too short, and I think a lot of older gamers share my predicament. I’m married, work full time, and have bills and a mortgage to pay, so I have to be selective about how I allocate my limited time and funds. A lot of those decisions hinge on calculations that combine common sense, intuition and knowledge of gaming genre archetypes to come to a conclusion about whether I should play a specific game. As Dork Shelf Games Editor Eric Weiss wrote in November: “With every new game, I find myself doing a peculiar calculus. How many games can I play with X amount of time?” (Editor’s note: Thanks Miguel!)

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Bigger doesn’t mean better, and some of the best single player experiences I’ve had in recent years were completed in under 8 hours. But many of those games were sold at a fraction of the price of The Order: 1886. In Canada, it costs $69.99 + tax to purchase a next gen game at retail. At worst, it comes to just under $16 per hour of gameplay, and that’s a lot to ask from both older and younger gamers alike.

In the grand scheme of things, we spend just as much on dinner and drinks, a night at the movies with overpriced popcorn, or for nosebleed tickets to a Raptors game. It’s all relative, after all. But as much as I try to justify it, as hard as I try to let it go, I can’t be OK with that. Gamers have come to expect more from their monetary investment in a game, and if we accept The Order as the state of gaming moving forward, then we’re allowing publishers to set an ugly precedent. No matter how beautiful a game is or how well-crafted the single player campaign turns out to be, a $70+ triple-A game probably shouldn’t be short enough to be finished in one sitting.

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What saddens me is the promise The Order: 1886 had when it was first announced. Rewind to E3 2013, and we were treated to an intriguing, beautifully rendered CG trailer about industrial age monster hunters with steampunk weapons. It evoked speculation that this could be Sony’s answer to Gears of War and initially became one of the reasons I favoured the PS4 as my first next gen console.

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But after a sizable delay, the announcement that it would have no multiplayer, and assertions that the game’s lower resolution and framerate were deliberate ways to make the game more filmic, it was clear that something was off. Last year I finally had a chance to play a small part of the game, and the 10 minutes I spent on the demo reflect what I’ve read since. It’s a generic, whack-a-mole shooter with mechanics that lack the weightiness of better shooters, bookended by nicely rendered cut scenes. That’s when I decided to abandon my pre-order of The Order.

This isn’t a review, and I’m still intrigued enough to play The Order: 1886 when it’s dropped to a more reasonable price. Questions about longevity and value aside, developer Ready at Dawn has crafted an interesting premise and a world that has promise, which isn’t bad considering it’s their first console game.

And in fairness to the publishers, audience expectations aren’t always consistent. They’ve grown with each generation, yet it also seems that we sometimes don’t actually know what we want. Gamers often clamour for more original IP, more innovation and more risks even while gravitating towards mainstays like Call of Duty because they offer a familiar value proposition.

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But while Ready at Dawn isn’t entirely to blame for the game’s pricing, they are partly culpable. Publishers and developers are increasingly going to find themselves in a predicament going forward. The definition of ‘gamer’ is much broader than it’s ever been. Release a game that’s too long and you run the risk of alienating average 32-year-olds who can’t devote hours to grinding to get the most out of a game. However, come out with a game that’s too short and devoid of replayability, and you piss off ‘hardcore’ gamers, the extremely vocal minority who are also gaming’s most stalwart advocates and best customers.

It’s a situation that has no clear-cut solution, and I wouldn’t be surprised if smaller studios end up deliberately crafting shorter gameplay experiences or removing certain features in order to uphold the quality of their games, manage their workflow, meet their deadlines, and stay relevant. Alternatively, we may see more content locked behind DLC and season pass paywalls, or a rise in episodic gaming, similar to Alan Wake or the Telltale adventures.

I won’t even pretend to know what the future holds, but following the criticism that The Order: 1886 received, the onus is on studios to figure out how appease disparate groups of gamers, without alienating others.

It’s a big dilemma and a tall order for all but the best of them.

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